Union tribal affairs minister V. K. C. Deo has pulled up the state of Madhya Pradesh after repeated complaints of coercion of tribals in Singrauli district to make way for coal mines.

Mr. Deo met members of Mahan Sangharsh Samiti and Greenpeace in New Delhi on Friday. The organisations are opposing activities of Mahan Coal Ltd (an Essar and Hindalco joint venture) in the Mahan Coal Block, which has proven reserves of 150 metric tonnes of coal. The area is inhabited by Agria, Kol, Khairwar, Gond and Panika tribes.

The villagers complained that the local administration has forged signatures and thumb impressions of more than 900 residents of Amelia village to show that they had attended a Gram Sabha meeting in March approving the project. The Forest Rights Act mandatorily requires the consent of the Gram Sabha for development projects. The villagers also alleged coercion and criminal intimidation by revenue officials and people associated with Mahan Coal.

Mr. Deo told The Hindu over telephone that local residents have clearly not given their consent for the project. “This is a blatant violation of the centre’s directives as well as laws and constitutional provisions. This is what leads to alienation of tribals. If the charges are proven, then it is not only a violation of the Forest Rights Act but also criminal law.”

The Minister had written to CM Shivraj Chouhan and Governor Ram Naresh Yadav last month pointing out “gross violations of the Forest Rights Act in Mahan”. The letter to the CM, a copy of which is with The Hindu, says that no community forest right has been granted in Singrauli despite several claims by villagers. Instead, forest land was being diverted for non-forest use.

In his letter Mr. Deo wrote that Gram Sabhas “were scuttled by goons of the Mahan Coal Limited along with State Government Representatives”. He added, “There is a strong nexus between the company and local authorities in the region which is leading to large scale violation of forest rights.” He told this paper that his ministry was contemplating legal action as no action has been taken by the state, despite repeated requests.

Top MP government officials refused to comment. Principal Secretary (Mineral Resources) Ajatshatru Srivastava said that it was improper for the state to comment on the minister’s observations. “Any allegations will be investigated”, he said.

Greenpeace’s senior campaigner Priya Pillai said, “This support from the Minister will put a spanner in the works of the State government’s effort to ride roughshod over the rights of the people in Mahan.”